The VAM show displayed three prints by Southern Graphics Council founder Boyd Saunders. Southern Serves the South shows a walking man with red, clay-dusted shoes. Tattered clouds sweep the sky, and a lone crow perches at a railroad crossing while freight cars ease into a sun-bleached depot. The etching suggests the plaintive cry of a train whistle and a forlorn traveler returning home.
Saunders is 80 and quips, “I’m better than I’ve ever been!” In his warm drawl he calls his art “visual poetry.” Rejecting complex descriptions of his work, he tells simple stories beautifully wrought: “I’ve been a storyteller all my life.” He did not know that his art adorns a gallery housed in a church foyer, but approves: “I like it!” Given the church’s investment in art, Saunders promises to reconsider his long-standing skepticism toward the Christianity of his childhood, hoping to reconcile art with faith.
Louise Fisher’s Diurnal or Nocturnal displays delicate plant shadows, the inky photonegative of a streetlight, and tiny lamp stamps arranged in a circle. It’s beautiful, subtle, and noncontroversial, but Fisher finds it interesting that a church is showing her work: “A lot of artists don’t really trust the church. … The art world in general consists of freethinking, liberal people and activists … and the church is obviously seen as tied with American politics and conservative agendas.” She hopes the VAM Gallery helps people from opposite ends of the political spectrum meet and mingle.
Worshippers entering Austin Oaks in January immediately confronted Rhode Island printmaker Joan Hall’s Diatom series. From a distance, her prints are pleasing displays of color: Muted greens and grays contrast with a splash of red and a vibrant dash of neon blue. Closer inspection reveals a web of combs, fishing wire, and other trash: Hall turns ugliness into beauty.
Although Hall does not profess to be a Christian—“The ocean is my religion,” she says—her work embodies High’s idea that Christian artists should ferret truth, beauty, and grace from a fragmented world. Hall: “Beauty can be a powerful tool. It draws people in and evokes thinking and a conversation.”
SOME CHRISTIANS BELIEVE art galleries stand outside the mission of the institutional church. They believe that individual Christians should be artists and curators according to their callings, but that the New Testament does not call the church to employ art as an outreach tool: It tasks the church to preach Jesus, who transforms sinners. When Christ transforms sinners and equips them as disciples, they engage culture in their various callings. As a result, cultural transformation of society—including the arts—follows, but the church promotes it only indirectly. The best way for the church to engage the arts is to make disciples.
Other Christians believe churches are free to have galleries and are relearning the importance of engaging culture on all levels, including the visual arts. But bridging the gap between the secular art world and evangelical visual sensibilities, not to mention branches of theology, remains a challenge. Many artists say Christians don’t value or appreciate good art.
Tim High for 15 years had confronted questions of “what kind of art to display, mindful that the canvases would be hung just steps outside the church sanctuary.” He questioned whether the gallery should be restricted to “clean art,” but ultimately decided to follow the Bible in highlighting a realistic picture of the human condition. Man’s sinful nature is on full display in Scripture, but so is God’s plan of redemption. High explains: “We are always walking on a razor blade.”
Lost audience in Louisville
What’s the point of an empty church building?
In 2006 this question vexed Sojourn Community Church in Louisville, Ky. The congregation had bought and renovated for worship an old elementary school, but the building stayed empty most of the week—until Sojourn opened an arts center and called it The 930, after the number in its street address.
Louisville’s musicians embraced The 930. Some were perplexed by its attachment to a church, but most just enjoyed in-the-round seating and good acoustics. Mike Cosper, one of Sojourn’s pastors, said, “We never had a goal to create a Christian subculture or to host a Christian coffeehouse where you trick people into thinking they’re at a casual hangout and then ambush them with an altar call. [The goal was] neutral ground, to lock arms with our neighbors and work for the common good.”
The attempt at first worked. Concerts sold out. Local media and artists normally opposed to conservative Christianity embraced Sojourn’s efforts. But in 2008 the Louisville Eccentric Observer, an alternative newsweekly, ran on its cover a photo of a man with his arms raised in praise at a Sojourn worship service. The headline: “Smells Like Holy Spirit.” The deck: “They’re young, involved, and socially aware—and think being gay is a sin. How does Sojourn Church square its progressive image with some of its more regressive ideas?”